Correcting the Record of WWI Hero and Medal of Honor Recipient Sgt. Henry Johnson
A century ago, on the evening of May 14, 1918 while on post duty with one other soldier, Private Henry Johnson single-handedly repelled an attack of up to 24 German soldiers primarily through hand-to-hand combat. In doing so, he prevented the other soldier from being captured and protected countless others he served with. His efforts resulted in 21 wounds.
The French government almost immediately rewarded his bravery with the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, but due to prejudice, it took until 2015 — nearly a century after his service — for Sgt. Henry Johnson¹ to receive the Medal of Honor from his own country.
As the genealogist who had the privilege of researching Sgt. Johnson in preparation for his Medal of Honor, I had the opportunity to seek out and steep myself in hundreds of pages of his paper trail, and it took me months after the award in 2015 to get much of the false information about him online corrected (normally reliable sources ranging from Smithsonian Magazine to PBS’s History Detectives contained a number of errors). Even so, the current centennial of his feat has prompted a number of inquiries from officials and journalists seeking to sort fact from fiction, and made me aware that much misinformation lingers, so I’d like to share some details of his life to help tip the scales in favor of what is true.
· His full name was William Henry Johnson, but Sgt. Johnson preferred to go by his middle name of Henry and only occasionally used his full name for formal purposes, such as when he married. This is why, for instance, newspaper reports of his death can be found under both the names of and Henry Johnson and William Henry Johnson.
· As seen here in his death certificate, Sgt. Johnson died on July 1, 1929 in Washington, D.C. and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Assertions that he died elsewhere (such as New York or Illinois) or on other dates are probably due to confusion with records of other soldiers with similar names. This death certificate also reveals that Sgt. Johnson did not die from alcoholism as some claim. He suffered a number of conditions that worsened through the 1920s, but ultimately died from myocarditis. Nor is it true that he was neglected by the government. He was hospitalized at Walter Reed as early as 1920, and additional records show him receiving disability compensation and care at home and several medical facilities over the last decade of his life.
· Sgt. Johnson was born between 1887 and 1897. Such a range may sound strange to 21st century ears, but accuracy and consistency in dates is a relatively recent development, as is our emphasis on birthdays. In all likelihood, the soldier did not know his own date of birth, and his lack of certainty is reflected in his paper trail, though he mostly claimed March 15th or May 15th of various years.
· He was born in West Salem, a district of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The notion that he was born in Alexandria, Virginia likely stems from his profile in the book Rank and File: True Stories of the Great War by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., but is mistaken. Documents such as his World War I draft registration card demonstrate that Sgt. Johnson himself consistently reported West(ern) Salem/Winston-Salem as his place of birth.
· Though he married twice, he has no known living relatives. A family with the Johnson name mistakenly believed that they were related and were involved with the campaign to honor him, but regrettably, there was no connection between them and Sgt. Johnson. Since they had effectively “adopted” him, however, members of this family were invited to the White House for his Medal of Honor ceremony, though they were not eligible to receive the award on his behalf. As modest consolation, I also researched their true family tree (remarkable in its own way) and presented them with the findings.
· Sgt. Johnson’s courageous service was not entirely forgotten until 2015. In addition to the many who campaigned vigorously on his behalf for the Medal of Honor since the 1990s, his admirers included Langston Hughes and fellow Medal of Honor recipient Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who aptly described him as “one of the five bravest American” to serve in the war.
More remains to be corrected, but clarifying his name, as well as shedding light on the dates and places of his birth and death, seems a fitting Memorial Day tribute. RIP, Sgt. Johnson.
¹ While it is customary in award situations to use the rank of the soldier at the time of the relevant incident, I have opted to refer to Henry Johnson by his highest attained rank.